Horse Sense

Texas artist Luis Jimenez is a familiar figure in the Denver art world. His works have been shown here over the last couple of decades, and in 1994 he was awarded a city commission for a monumental public sculpture, "Denver Mustang." This piece, which has yet to be completed, will be the most important of the more than $7 million worth of art commissions at Denver International Airport, owing to its prominent site outside the tent-roofed Jeppesen Terminal.

But in spite of the fact that DIA celebrated its second birthday late last month, and though some of the airport's other artworks have been in place so long they've already required the attention of art restorers, "Denver Mustang" is still nowhere to be found. The city's most recent estimate is that the piece will be erected later this year. We'll see.

The "Denver Mustang" proposal calls for a 35-foot-tall blue horse with fiery orange eyes to be placed on the top of a rise west of the terminal. Along a path that will lead up to the sculpture, Jimenez plans to place plaques tracing the history of the horse in America. He has written that this path will create "an ascension [to] the cross kind of situation that leads you up to the top of an overlook with vistas of downtown Denver, Pikes Peak and the mountains to the west."

The religious tone of the piece--Jimenez conceives of "Denver Mustang" as a kind of shrine to the horse--is one of the artist's signatures. Another is the influence of pop culture. "Denver Mustang" is to be made of brightly colored fiberglass, like a cigar boat. And Jimenez obviously was well aware of the work's reference to another cultural phenomenon--the Denver Broncos. Did his use of the team colors, coupled with fan loyalty, ultimately help secure the commission for Jimenez? We'll never know for sure, but at the very least, the orange and blue of the "Denver Mustang" must have been a subliminal plus with the on-the-job trainees who made the decisions about awarding art commissions at DIA.

The delay in getting "Denver Mustang" installed is said to have its roots in a conflict between Jimenez and the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, which oversaw the airport art project. According to a source close to the program at the time the airport was completed, Jimenez balked at erecting "Denver Mustang" before the rise with its ascending path had been properly landscaped. Apparently the disagreement has been resolved, and "Denver Mustang" may actually soon be on its way to DIA--though it presumably will arrive complete with a color scheme that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has since rendered obsolete by ditching the team's orange jerseys and opting for a new, darker shade of blue.

While waiting for "Denver Mustang" to make its debut, exhibition-goers can put the art before the horse by attending Luis Jimenez in Black and White at the Museo de las Americas. That show, which runs through this weekend, features a model of "Denver Mustang" as well as other sculptures and a wide array of the artist's prints. But don't let the title fool you--the sculptures and many of the prints are in color.

The exhibit pairs a three-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture of "Denver Mustang" from 1994 with a hand-colored lithograph of the piece completed the same year. In each, a horse is seen rearing up on its hind legs. The steed in the sculpture is lean and angular, the one in the print more thickly muscled and rounded.

Horses are a recurring motif for Jimenez, along with other Western animals such as snakes, birds and jackrabbits. In the fiberglass sculpture "Jack Rabbit From Progress 1," which was loaned to the Museo by a private collector (as were many of the other pieces included here), the rabbit of the title jumps from his hiding place in a cactus, at the base of which is a glittery horny toad. This 1976 sculpture is the oldest piece on display.

The animal kingdom is just one of several subjects for Jimenez; other topics include social issues such as police brutality. In "Reasonable Force," four brawny policeman encircle a barefoot fallen man and beat him with clubs. Jimenez makes the ugly scene quite beautiful. He also addresses alcoholism and prostitution, but the main theme he takes up in this show is death, including pieces that relate to the artist's own mortality.

Death has been brought to the forefront for the not-yet-sixty-year-old Jimenez by his fading eyesight. In the late 1970s, just as he began to establish a national reputation for himself, impending blindness in one of his eyes was averted by a corneal transplant. Jimenez knew from that time on that the implanted cornea would eventually deteriorate, and it did in 1994--a personal crisis that must be one reason progress has slowed on the erection of "Denver Mustang." But the show at the Museo demonstrates that he has been able to use his fear of blindness as an inspiration to create new artwork.

Among the first pieces the viewer confronts at the Museo are three self-portraits that take up the topic of Jimenez's partial blindness by showing one of his eyes as a blank orb. On either side of a 1994 etching are two large prints, one a colored etching, the other a hand-colored lithograph. In all three self-portraits, Jimenez stares unblinkingly at the viewer. In the etching, a skull has been superimposed over his face. Jimenez isn't ambiguous about what he's depicting: For him, death is on the horizon.

Informative text panels explain the connection between Jimenez's skull portraits and the imagery of the Dia de los Muertos observed in Latin America. The panels don't explain, though, that the Day of the Dead is a commemoration of the Catholic feast of All Souls' Day that roughly corresponds to the American Halloween. Like Halloween, the Dia de los Muertos is a raucous celebration. But unlike Halloween, it's a time to reflect on those who have died and includes, among the devout, prayers to relieve the suffering of those in Hell and Purgatory. Its imagery is an earthy mix of the sacred and the profane--exactly the combo Jimenez relies on throughout this show.

Born to a prominent Mexican-American family in El Paso, Jimenez was exposed to Hispanic religious folk art at an early age. He had an even more personal connection to the pop-cultural influences that would later become central to his artwork--his father operated a successful neon-sign company. Jimenez studied his craft at the University of Texas, where he was exposed to traditional Western art, and later at the Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City, where he absorbed the influence of pre-Columbian art as well as that of the great Mexican muralists, including Diego Rivera.

Jimenez's disparate influences are evident in works like "Self Portrait," which shows the artist's head as a skull. Many of the pieces in the show, even older works that are unrelated to Jimenez's vision problems, take up morbid topics. In two older pieces, a lithograph and a fiberglass sculpture from 1983 both titled "Southwestern Pieta," Jimenez has reversed the classic pose of Christ lying dead in the lap of the Virgin Mary. In Jimenez's adaptation, a dead woman lies in the arms of a bare-chested Indian. Jimenez has written that such works were inspired by the kitschy calendars that Mexican-American businesses like his father's used as promotional giveaways. Their florid and romantic depictions of the twilight of the Aztecs made a lasting impression on the young boy.

Some of the most compelling pieces in the Museo exhibit are the prints that draw an arcane and mysterious connection between prostitution and death. "A Galope," an etching from the 1991 "Entre la Puta y la Muerte" series, shows a female skeleton adorned with hair and breasts riding a galloping horse, while "El Borracho," a two-panel lithograph from 1992, pairs a drunk with a prostitute who's turned into a skeleton. In "Flirt With Death," a lithograph from 1985, Jimenez captures a street scene at night. A soldier, part living human and part skeleton, leans against a wall topped with barbed wire, holding a rifle and a cigarette. He's talking with a corpulent prostitute who's wearing a lewd and revealing dress made from an American flag.

The many dynamic prints in the exhibit underscore the fact that, while Jimenez is known principally as a sculptor, he's a whiz at drawing. And despite its pervasive focus on death and the dark side of life, Luis Jimenez in Black and White is quite beautiful.

Luis Jimenez in Black and White, through March 22 at the Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, 571-4401.

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